Air Force confirms PFCs at high level
Officials pledge to conduct further probes that may analyze human health risks.
FOUNTAIN» Water providers and residents south of Colorado Springs chafed as the Air Force on Tuesday unveiled a nine-month study verifying that firefighting foam used at Peterson Air Force Base contaminated water and soil with toxic perfluorinated chemicals at levels more than 1,000 times higher than a national health advisory limit.
Air Force officials pledged to conduct further investigations that, sometime after 2019, may include analysis of human health risks. This initial investigation focused on contamination at the base. The spread of contaminants to where tens of thousands of people live remains a mystery, the officials said.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment leaders have said the state was waiting on the Air Force for information on how far and how fast PFCs have moved. El Paso County and CDPHE officials at a public meeting here Tuesday night said their agencies lack money to track the PFCs moving in groundwater at unknown concentrations south toward Pueblo.
“It makes me really angry that it has taken them this long to get some numbers — and more than a little concerned,” said Fountain City Council member Greg Lauer, who has been fielding calls from anxious residents for a year. “We and our ratepayers are going to be
dealing for a very long time with this problem we did not create.”
Security Water and Sanitation District manager Roy Heald said his agency spent $3.6 million on pipelines and purchases of alternative clean water supplies after municipal wells were contaminated but has yet to receive a promised $800,000 in reimbursements from the Air Force.
“Our need is immediate. It is financial. And we need to get back to being able to use our well water,” Heald said.
Air Force engineers found PFC contamination of groundwater at the Peterson base east of Colorado Springs reached levels up to 88,000 parts per trillion, and that soil contamination reached as high as 240,000 ppt, based on testing of 23 water samples and 33 soil samples at seven sites on the base. They confirmed that the use of aqueous filmforming foam, or AFFF, which helps put out fuel fires, led to runoff of the PFCs into water tapped by tens of thousands of residents south of Colorado Springs but said they do not know to what extent it has spread or how long it will last.
The Air Force investigation report — more than 600 pages — also blamed other unspecified sources of PFC contamination, reiterating the stance military officials have taken in the year since news organizations revealed that PFCs had contaminated municipal drinking water supplies.
“PFCs are found widely in the environment today, and there are likely other contributors to the contamination,” the report summary says. “As we continue our work with the public water suppliers in the Fountain, Widefield and Security area, we will study remediation steps, as other potential contributors are investigated.”
The report’s findings — “that activities at Peterson AFB have impacted environmental media” — were promised a month ago.
Air Force engineers in October began investigating to determine sources of the PFCs that state and local water tests had shown to be spreading from the base, including an area where firefighters trained. PFCs have been linked to health harm — low birth weights and kidney and testicular cancers — but public health epidemiological work in Colorado has not been done. A senior Pentagon official announced that the Air Force would spend $2 billion on PFC cleanups nationwide.
The EPA in May 2016 set a health advisory limit for two types of PFCs at 70 ppt based on the latest scientific studies of what could be harmful to people and the planet.
Air Force engineers investigating at Peterson found that PFCs from firefighting foam also had contaminated irrigation ponds at a golf course at high levels. “A complete human exposure pathway exists for golfers and golf course maintenance personnel exposed to surface water,” the report says.
The U.S. government does not regulate PFCs, which also are used to make products such as stain-proof carpet, nonstick cookware and grease-resistant fastfood wrappers.
The same properties that make PFCs useful snuffing fires prevent them from breaking down in the environment.
They rank among the worst of hundreds of unregulated chemicals that federal scientists are detecting nationwide in drinking-water supplies, including hormones, pesticides, antibiotics and antidepressants.
Air Force Civil Engineering Center team leader Cornell Long said military funding for environment work on this problem is secure for now. An expanded site investigation to be completed next year may include data about concentrations of PFCs beyond the base. Long also said the Air Force will honor its commitments to reimburse communities south of Colorado Springs with a total of $4.3 million.
“This is an Air Force-wide issue. As good stewards of the environment, and wanting to do the right thing for communities, it is important that we continue to work at this,” he said. “There is still more work to be done.”
The contamination levels documented in Colorado “are very similar” to levels found at other air bases around the nation and abroad, he said. “What makes it difficult here is the wide range of contamination we are seeing on the base — and the information we do not have on how the contamination might move.”
A CDPHE website shows the contaminants have spread south beyond Widefield, Security and Fountain through the Fountain Creek watershed. In April 2016, groundwater samples taken south of Fountain along Hanover Road showed PFC contamination higher than 100 ppt.
State tests for PFCs in drinking water have not been done since November, CDPHE records show. And the CDPHE hasn’t measured PFCs in groundwater since February, the records show.
On Tuesday, Tyson Ingels, CDPHE’s lead drinking-water engineer, said agency officials “are not doing any tests now. We don’t have the funds to pay for any testing.”
El Paso County health spokeswoman Danielle Oller said the county also lacks funding to track PFC contamination, but that private well owners wanting tests will be referred to the Air Force for possible help.
“They need to be testing the water,” local farmer Susan Gordon said, adding that a filter provided by the Air Force may be losing its effectiveness.
Gordon and scores of other residents of Fountain, Security and Widefield have turned to buying bottled water.
“It is a major frustration,” said Deborah Stout-Meininger, 63, a resident of Fountain for 20 years, who supplements her Social Security income with work at a
“This is an Air Force-wide issue. As good stewards of the environment, and wanting to do the right thing for communities, it is important that we continue to work at this.”
Cornell Long, Air Force Civil Engineering Center team leader
truck stop but finds the $40 a month extra she pays for water a burden.
“And I get really paranoid now,” she said. “I worry about whether I am drinking safe water or not.”
Agencies hosted a water open house at Janitell Junior High in Fountain on Tuesday.